Three Imaginary Girls

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The Marty Riemer Funny Festival has become arguably the biggest night for comedy in the Northwest over the past six years. This year’s event is this Friday (January 15) at the Paramount and features comedians Bill Burr, Kyle Cease, Nick Thune and Jeff Garlin, one of the stars of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, which I think is the funniest program on television right now.

This year’s Funny Festival is being billed as “Wholly independent since 2009” after Riemer’s often very funny morning radio show was canceled on 103.7 KMTT (The Mountain) last September. I met up with Marty Riemer and his equally funny co-host and partner in crime, Jodi Brothers, at a coffee shop in West Seattle to talk about this year’s Funny Festival, what people can expect on Friday, wrapping the governor in a shroud, and sex with koalas. Goddamn it.

What can people expect from the Funny Festival on Friday night?

Marty Riemer: If you’ve never been to a Funny Festival before, what sets us apart from other comedy shows is that ours is a show. It’s not just the lights dim, the spotlight comes on and the emcee comes out and then the first comic, the second comic and third comic and then everyone goes home. We put some effort into what goes on around the comics. We put a lot of effort in early on in deciding who the comics will be and then we work on how to present the comics and make it different and give it some sex appeal, compared to the other comedy shows.

What I originally said was that I wanted to turn comedy into the “new rock and roll” because rock always felt like it had this way of presenting its merchandise and there seemed some shame with comedy. “We’re sorry, this won’t take long, hope it won’t be too late.” Our whole goal was to give it some show appeal. That’s what you can expect: everything from a sporting legend that will open the show, like Apolo Anton Ohno – it won’t be, but feel free to suggest it because nothing impresses us more than disappointed looks for the first several rows. “They think Apolo Ohno is coming.”

We focus equally on booking the comics as we do on the opening. The opening of the show, for us, is of paramount importance. It began the very first year, we thought we were really impressive because we created this recorded intro with the voice of God and real rock music. That was our way of introducing comedy as something you didn’t need to be ashamed of. The second year we had kids come out and read letter that were real heartfelt appeals to me to bring another comedy show back to Seattle.

Jodi Brothers: That was really funny.

Marty: Yeah, it was funny. The letters were written by me and they were letters that would be inappropriate for kids to be reading at a comedy show. The third year, I came out and started talking and we transitioned into a blues number about how were lamenting so much stuff we were in, “but look, we’re here for a comedy show.” After that it really went up an exponential curve.

For the fourth year – there’s a saying comedy that you either have to be funny or know magic – and I don’t know either. I don’t know how to be funny…

Jodi: That’s true.

Marty: And I don’t know magic. Everyone thinks that because I host the show, I’m a standup comedian, but I’m not. The very least I could do was develop a magic act, so we brought Jodi and we wrapped her in this “shroud of mystery” on stage in front of a few thousand people. We wrapped her in this shroud and then got some magic dust out and had some production elements and then unwrapped the shroud and Governor Gregoire was standing there. When we did that we thought “oh man, this is going to be so hard to beat next year.”

Last year we did this Letterman-esque Bollywood number. Jodi was working at a strip club because of the hard economic times and had to take a second job across town. I decided to we had to bring her to the comedy show. In the middle of the show, I ran off stage and ran across town with cameras and got her out of the strip club with a Bollywood dance.

Jodi: Flash mob.

Marty: Yeah, a flash mob with twenty or forty other people.

I’m really sad I missed those. This’ll be my first Funny Festival.

Marty: The magic trick really was, well, props to Gov. Gregoire for having the chutzpah to do that. When we went to her office to do a dry-run through the magic trick they thought we were out of our minds. Security staff is standing there and we asked “do you like magic tricks?” “No.” The trick was when I wrapped Jodi up in the shroud, which is this huge…

Jodi: Airline blanket.

Marty: When I wrapped Jodi up in the airline blanket, it wasn’t Jodi wrapped up in it anymore, it was Gov. Gregoire. So the whole time I’m doing this stuff with the magic dust and the glitz and the glamour, I’m realizing inside my head that “oh my god, I’ve got the governor of the state of Washington wrapped inside of a cloth and she’s standing there mummified.”

Jodi: And that was an election year and you’ll notice she got reelected. We asked Mayor Nickels to be in our flash mob video last year and he declined – and he did not get reelected. I’m just saying… I’m not saying there’s any correlation, but…

Marty: Maybe Apolo Ohno will get a gold medal after appearing in our video. Which he’s not, so he’s good.

So that’s what you can expect. It’s more than an awkward, in the basement of a bar, brick wall comedy show.

Jodi: Just a little bit more.

All of the comedians you’ve booked for this show are really funny. What made you want to book, say Jeff Garlin or Nick Thune or Kyle Cease?

Marty: Because we played comedy on the radio, our focus was already narrowed by what comedians we can play on the radio. We’re not prudes about this, but there are some comedians whose material is so blue that we can’t play it on the radio. We can bleep things out, that’s not the problem, but if the whole subject matter is something where I need to bleep out forty-five seconds of a minute long bit, it wouldn’t make sense. With those parameters, it leads us into a certain direction.

After that, it has to be comedians that have a certain amount of material where we don’t think they’re going to come out and do three minutes and the rest is filler. Guys like Bill Burr and Kyle Cease have tons of material that we could promote it really well on the air.

Jodi: Marty is very particular about the comics.

Marty: She books the comics. We discuss who we want to go for and she gets on the phone and she tries to wrangle these guys.

Jodi: That’s not the most important part. We’ve done a few of these now and you can tell there’s a formula to it and it’s his formula that’s in his head. There’s a progress of style and intellect that the comics will have. You won’t get four really sarcastic, depressed comics or four really macho comics or four women. It’s very different but there’s no way to explain how it’s done, you just have to know comedy.

Marty: And we’re wholly unimpressed by popularity, oddly enough. We have agents telling us all the time “you have to book this guy” but if it’s not the right style of comedy, it just falls flat with us. Who is the guy we always bring up, the ventriloquist?

Jeff Dunham?

Marty: Yeah, he’s insanely popular but we’d never do it.

I hate him. It’s either rational or irrational, but I truly hate him.

Marty: I think he’s a close-minded dick. He’s the blue-collar comedy guy who just happened to dress up as a ventriloquist.

Jodi: Or that Terry Fator guy, who got like $100,000,000 after he won “America’s Got Talent”. Now he’s in Vegas and we have to ask “who wants to see these ventriloquist acts?”

Marty: We get so many messages that say “you gotta book this Jeff Dunham guy.” First off, he’s outrageously expensive because of his popularity, and then he’s just sitting there pointing out the brown people in the audience and saying “you guys talk funny and don’t allow us drive big cars.” I don’t know how funny that really is. Maybe we lose part of our audience because of that…

Jodi: We definitely lose part of our audience because of that but we don’t want them anyway because they’re not going to like the rest of the comics that we like. We like “unpopular” comics.

Marty: The very first year, we had the slate open to us because we hadn’t done this before. The very first year we had Jim Gaffigan as our headliner and Demetri Martin, who at that time was relatively undiscovered, David Crowe was our opener and Mike Birbiglia. That was a fricking lineup right out of the gate.

Again, because you have this overarching theme that they have to be able to be on the radio, they’re all very clean comics. The next year was Jake Johannsen, Tom Papa and Maria Bamford, also very clean. It wasn’t that we designing it that way, we like people we can have on the radio.

The problem now is that there’s a certain level of expectation. Was it year five?

Jodi: Four. Greg Giraldo.

Marty: Year four, when we brought Greg Giraldo. Holy crap. Greg Giraldo came up to me just before he went on stage, who by the way missed his plane and was high on something not ten minutes before he was to go on stage. I told his agent, “I’m not sure if we can book Greg Giraldo. We love, love his comedy but we’re not sure he’s reliable enough to book him”. His agent insisted he’s reliable and he’s clean. That morning we got a call saying he missed his flight but he was going to make it. We kept getting updates like “his plane landed” after the show started and that was the show the governor was at – and not only was she in the show, she stayed for a while. The first two acts were relatively clean. Greg Giraldo asks me just before he was to go onstage, “Marty, I say ‘goddamn it’ in my routine is that okay?” and I said that it’s no problem and there’s nothing to worry about. He was totally yanking my chain because he goes out there and starts making jokes about koala bears giving him head.

Jodi: Goddamn it.

He was a lot of people’s favorites and a lot of other people said he went too far.

Marty: That’s what’s so amazing about him. He’s Harvard-educated and really, really smart, but filthy as hell. He gets away with that with me because his presentation is so smart. He’s not just copping out with a swear word.

Every year, there’s this angst with how far across that imaginary line are these comics going to go. We have no fear about Kyle Cease or Nick Thune and Jeff Garlin…

Jodi: We just don’t know.

Marty: Have you ever seen the routine of that horrible comedian Bob Saget? The whole Bob Saget phenomenon is like “here’s my chance to cut loose” but he’s not even funny.

But people think he’s funny because they used to watch “Full House.”

Marty: Right. It’s out of character for him, what’s going on? So we don’t know what to expect from Jeff Garlin.

Jodi: I think he’ll be pretty clean.

Marty: And then Bill Burr, we just don’t know.

Jodi: His routine is about having sex with koalas. Goddamn it.

Marty: Are we still on the first question?

I think second.

Jodi: We don’t get to talk to anyone anymore.

Marty: I don’t bathe.

Jodi: Marty never bathes.

There’s been a lot of people whose careers have taken off after playing Funny Festivals, like Demetri Martin and Flight of the Conchords, is discovering new talent important to the success of the Funny Festival?

Marty: I just look at “can they make me laugh?” There’s a certain style of the presentation where I think they have to have a certain confidence on stage. Now, ever since Flight of the Conchords, who established a trajectory that is a little hard to maintain. We now need at least one marquee name. In the early days we didn’t need it, and I’m not sure if we even do now because I’m not sure that people are buying tickets for Jeff Garlin or Bill Burr, I think they’re going because they’ve gone in the past and were never disappointed and that’s why we’re going again. We need to remind ourselves of that but early on we get nervous and go “we need one name that people recognize.”

Jodi: There’s a specific formula. There’s a list of agents that represents millions of comics, so there’s millions of options but Marty will say no, it’s black and white. Some people I think are fine and very funny but Marty will just say no.

Marty: And there’ll be people in the back of my head that I think will be a dream to get and then it doesn’t work out for several reasons. It is a Rubik’s Cube that you need to solve. You need to find a venue that is available and then you have to find comics. We always had an A, B and C list and try to fill it up, but when we’d fill it up with maybe two B’s but no A’s or an A but no B and then we’d need to change a date and we’d lose our A.

Have you ever repeated an act?

Marty: One guy, Mike Birbiglia. We didn’t announce it the second time, or sell it on his name. We announced a super, secret guest. People had no idea what was going to happen until he came out on stage and surprised everyone.

There’s always an expectation of what to expect at a music show, but when we put on our comedy shows, there’s a buzz in the audience before the show because they don’t know what to expect. It’s wonderful. There’s not a comedian that plays one of our shows that doesn’t tell us afterwards “that’s the best show I ever performed.” The audience is so into it that you could hear a pin drop in between the jokes because they don’t want to miss a single thing. People are almost getting angry when people are laughing because they don’t want to miss the next joke.

Jodi: And all the comics are watching each other from sidestage instead of sitting up in their dressing rooms waiting for their call times. It really does feel like a family affair. All of the comics, from the opener to the headliner, do their set and sit and watch everybody else.

Marty: There are certain comics that start out as skeptics, who sign on to the show by their agent and when we meet them for the first time, I tell them before they go on that they’re going to love this crowd and they say it’s like another crowd, but it’s so true. They walk into this room and everyone is into it and laughing and having a good time. It’s almost unheard of. Now watch, this’ll be the one where the wheels come off.

There are two comedians (Kyle Cease and Nick Thune) that have local ties. Is that important to you when deciding who to book?

Marty: It should be but funny is much more important. Maybe I’m a comedy snob but there are a dozen or so local comedians who show up on the bill of every comedy show because people ask say “we want to do a comedy show, who can we get?” and it’s always one of those twelve. Nothing against those twelve because they’re all probably very funny – but it gives the show a certain vibe. “Oh, it’s this local show with the same comedians.” I don’t want to name names but every decade there is a group of comics who make the local clubs, so we’re very careful that when we put people on the bill we don’t put people that they’ve seen before. Nick Thune and Kyle Cease have grown way beyond Seattle. It’s nice that they’re from Seattle, but that’s not what we were going for.

Jodi: It’s cool, though.

Marty: It’s very cool but that wasn’t what we were going for, we just really liked their material.